Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Taking Flight by Michaela & Elaine DePrince

There are some people who feel entitled to write memoirs at the age of 20, despite having not lived a full life at all. Their lives have been utterly normal, yet they insist on producing written works of "art" entirely about themselves. This always bugs me. That being said, Michaela DePrince is not one of those people at all. Her new book, Taking Flight, shows her triumphant story as she journeys from the orphanage in Sierra Leone to the Dutch National Ballet. It's a wonderful, uplifting story.

Taking Flight is about a girl. A girl who saw her mother die at the age of four and was entrusted to an orphanage, where she is labeled Number 27, the last and most unwanted one out of 27 girls. A girl who suffers from a spotted skin condition that incites nicknames such as "devil-child". A girl rescued by the simple picture of a ballerina en pointe, torn from a magazine caught in the clutches of a gate. 

Many children in America are not aware of racism in America, believing it has been eradicated entirely with the prohibition of slavery and Jim Crow laws. But this is not true. The fact is, we Americans like to say that we've done away with racism, give ourselves a pat on the back, then turn around and cross the street as soon as we see a supposedly "suspicious" man of color. Parents don't like to tell their children that racism exists because it puts them in an uncomfortable position--it shows that they haven't done what is supposed to be done. This book has the incredible potential to open children's eyes to what really goes one in a world divided by a color wheel. Michaela tells the tale of her struggle to break through the barriers set up by prejudiced people who think that black women aren't delicate enough to dance. She expressed her goal in an interview to one day dance the part of the White Swan in the beautiful ballet Swan Lake--hoping that people will overlook the stereotypes attached to the fact that she is African-American. Here's an excerpt from the book:

        During rehearsal one of the mothers who was chaperoning us said, "Black girls just shouldn't be dancing ballet. They're too athletic. They should stick to modern or jazz. That's where they belong." 
        My younger sister told me that she once heard a dance teacher claim, "Black girls can't point their toes."
       Once, someone in the ballet world, whose opinion meant a lot to me said to my mother, "We don't like to waste a lot of time, money, and effort on the black girls. When they reach puberty, they develop big thighs and behinds, and can't dance ballet anymore." I overheard the remark, but I wasn't supposed to be outside the door listening in, so I couldn't speak up and challenge what he said. My mother did, though, and that made me feel a little better. However, those words still terrified me to the point that I worried endlessly about the fateful day when I'd reach puberty and grow a big butt and big thighs.
....My mother told me the mean comments that I overheard about black ballerinas were based on jealousy as well as bigotry. 
    "You need to ignore them," she said. 
    "But I can't!" I sobbed as I struggled to catch my breath. "I'm worried that I'll never be a ballerina." 

I feel that racism at such a young age is cruel--it can shut down the dreams of children. It is blatantly unfair to me, and I think that the book shows other kids and teens that too. I hope it will urge them to combat it. 

The other aspect of this book was how it affected me. I realized that all the things I have--shoes, running water, food, are things that I and most of the population of the area I live in take for granted. This part of the book showed me that.

     I loved opening the kitchen cabinet to choose my cereal for breakfast. I would pour it into a bright yellow bowl and add a scoop of fruit, either strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries. Then I'd pour in a cup of milk. Having so many choices made me feel giddy with joy. Best of all, I could eat until my belly was full. I didn't have to wait until someone filled the bowls for twenty-six other children.
    When I needed to use the toilet, I could just jump up and run to the bathroom. I didn't have to worry about someone stealing my food if I left it behind. I flushed without fear of falling into a pit of smelly waste. Then I washed my hands with a foamy pink soap that squirted from a bottle. Ah yes, in America everything smelled good, I thought, even the toilet!

I have seen the pits that Michaela describes, and they are not pretty. I am now grateful for having at least 5 choices for breakfast and fresh, organic fruit to flavor it with. Suddenly my house seems huge and extravagant. She reveals a layer of the world hidden to most people of America. 

The book Taking Flight should show you that, as cheesy as the Disney line sounds, dreams do come true. But, unlike Disney, you really have to work. It's easier to climb down a mountain than to climb up, but the view at the peak is so much better than the one below. 

Look for this book in October 2014, from Knopf Books for Young Readers. 


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